Lore-Win: The Birth of Barovia
Any setting can offer a certain amount of horror. For those who pull back the curtain and peer deep into the night, there are always beasts who stare back. Monsters and men who can haunt the nightmares of those they prey upon. Yet despite all this, settings like Faerun remain, all in all, a decent place to live. One can live many lifetimes without having to worry about the affairs of dark gods and demons, of the undead and the newly dead. It is possible to have hope in the Realms.
Unlike in Barovia.
Welcome back to Lore-Win, the Dungeons and Dragons lore article series. Today we’ll be piercing the mists of Ravenloft and laying bare the tale behind the most famous of Ravenloft’s domains. The home of one Strahd von Zarovich.
Beyond the Mists
Outside of the doom and gloom, far removed from the choking mists, the Demiplane of Dread began life in what you might call “the real world” in the ancient year of 1983. At the time, TSR were still the publishers of the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
Husband and wife team Tracy and Laura Hickman created the original incarnation of Ravenloft after one of their own games of D&D. Something that might seem like a common theme by now.
Tracy (left) and Laura (middle) Hickman with Nathan Fillion (right).
Source: Wikimedia Commons, posted by Trhickman, used under Creative Commons 3.0
In the game, Tracy Hickman ran into a vampire picked from the columns of the random encounter table and found the encounter to feel wrong. This was a vampire, sure, but where had they come from? They should have a castle of their own, a setting as their own. So he and his wife Laura set out and made their own game which they called Vampyr and for a time only say play with friends and family around Halloween.
This game would finally see life in October, 1983 as little more than an adventure module for the game. Namely, Adventure Module 16: Ravenloft. This adventure module is, to quote Chris Perkins, a “Groundbreaking adventure in a lot of ways.”
“Namely because it featured a central villain named Strahd von Zarovich.”
This adventure proved the appeal of gothic horror in D&D and took the title of the single best selling adventure in D&D history. In 1986, it received a sequel, Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill. But as a world, it would sit in the skeletal form of unlife for a few years yet.
In 1990, Ravenloft was fleshed out into a full campaign setting in Ravenloft: Realm of Terror for AD&D 2nd Edition. Of course, it should be mentioned that Ravenloft was very much a product of its time.
And we’ll leave that at that.
Let's focus on the fun stuff instead. Like how you may be attacked by werewolves at any time!
Source: Ravenloft: Domains of Dread (2e)
Since then, Ravenloft has seen no shortage of novels, sourcebooks, and articles exploring additional details of the setting.
But within the confines of the canon, what is Barovia? And more importantly, where did it come from?
The Domains of Dread
Well, to talk about Barovia, we must first delve into the Domains of Dread themselves!
Or rather, the larger-scale world that the many settings of Ravenloft exist within.
Unlike the other worlds that we have discussed, the Domains of Dread are not a proper plane. There is no sphere associated with them. There is no planet on which they exist. They were not birthed by aeons of building, or from the workings of an overgod.
Instead, the Domains of Dread exist within a construct. An artificial pocket realm that prowls across the Ethereal Plane. Forged by implacable Dark Powers from the hidden fears of worlds, blanketed in obscuring and choking mists. Yet this is not the only thing that sets it apart from the other worlds we have explored.
Ravenloft is not a single realm, it is many stitched together. At the heart of each of these domains is a powerful being known as a “darklord”, though some have more than one. These darklords are, to quote the 3.5 campaign setting book, a “seed of evil” and are linked to their domain by both blood ties and their crimes.
You know, like Strahd.
Don't be fooled by the air of class and culture. He will kill you.
Source: Curse of Strahd
This is not a realm in which powerful magics weave through the world to create wonders or heal the sick. Mages are rare, and the commoners know little of the supernatural except through what they learn of by way of folklore.
This is not a realm in which good prevails, or even where good and evil exist in balance. Evil reigns here, and the Dark Powers who rule over the Domains of Dread are known to pluck evil-doers from other realms and bring them through the mists to one of the realms within their domain.
The Dark Powers shield evil so much that alignment cannot even be determined by magical effect. Or at least, they did not as of 3.5.
Those who commit evil acts are not fully rewarded though, nor are the innocent condemned. Evil actions risk a reflection of these atrocities in the minds and bodies of those who commit them. Their form twisted to show their corruption without and may be trapped in prisons of their own making.
Meanwhile, the innocent may find themselves protected from darkness in subtle ways.
Though, there are those who would take this more as a challenge than anything.
The Mists that choke the Domains of Dread are a boundary and obstacle both to those who live within them. For each of the realms that exist within Ravenloft, the Mists serve as the border. To walk into them is to watch as the ground beneath your feet vanishes from sight, to make directions an exercise in futility. Without the use of a current in the Mists known as a Mistway, or an adequately powerful guide, you will be at the mercy of the Mists and deposited somewhere and somewhen else with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
Mists so thick, not even a miniature giant space hamster will help you escape.
Source: Dungeons and Dragons: Shadows of the Vampire
To locals of Ravenloft, the Mists are a bogeyman, and a bringer of bad luck and misfortune. The Misty Border, as it is known, is the home to countless horrors according to legend.
But what are the Mists? Some say they are the cobweb that binds the domains together. But whatever they are, they can take many forms throughout the realms that make up Ravenloft, and sometimes they stretch out to other worlds and allow Ravenloft to make a mark on them as well.
And what of the Dark Powers? The creators of the realm. What are they?
Well, those who pursue that particular mystery have an unfortunate tendency to lose their minds in the pursuit of the truth. A fate I would personally prefer to avoid.
After all, isn’t the mystery part of the horror?
The history of the Realm of Dread may elude us forever. Some legends state that the wandering world may be as old as fear and that it may ebb and flow in an eternal cycle. A great, unending expansion and decay that the realms we know now maybe only the latest rebirth of a realm that died before.
The exact origins of it are as mysterious as the Dark Powers.
But there are some truths that we may still yet uncover - though they may just lead to more questions.
One such truth is the matter of this tale overall, the history behind Barovia.
For some, this may be a torturous experience, though as a warlock I assure you I have dealt with far worse.
One of the difficult matters when discussing the domains within Ravenloft is their tendency to just… appear. To refer to the campaign setting book from 3.5 once more, when a new domain forms in the Mists it just appears. Its denizens pop into existence with complete memories and full lives, and their recorded history can stretch back centuries.
And of the domains, Barovia was the first.
Barovia’s history begins long ago, in a world whose name has been forgotten.
In year 1 of the Barovian Calendar (or BC), Barovia was founded. Not by Strahd, but by his ancestors. Strahd von Zarovich himself was born in the year 299 BC, and as the noble tradition of the family demanded, he entered into the military and rose through the ranks.
In the year 320 BC, the barbarian hordes of the Tergs invaded Barovia and conquered the lands. Strahd was forced to flee, but while he may have been bloodied, he was not beaten. He rallied his forces and undertook a grueling campaign to fight back the Terg warlords. It would not be until 347 that the last of the Tergs were driven out of Barovia, and Strahd claimed the throne once more, hailed as a conquering hero.
And for the seat of his new sovereignty, he took the last Terg fortress, naming it Castle Ravenloft.
Such a charming place.
Souce: Dragon+ #6, Travel Talk: Ravenloft
The war had changed Strahd, however. The endless combat and blood and death had hardened his heart and made compassion an alien emotion. Yet Strahd felt the need to reestablish the von Zarovich bloodline, and so he called out for his family to reunite and join him.
As a result, Strahd would meet his brother, Sergei and cement his own fate in one fell stroke. Sergei was 25 years his younger, a charming, handoms cleric who made him ponder his lost youth. And Sergei soon met the love of his life, a villager named Tatyana.
It was a match made in heaven, and a nightmare from the deepest hells for Strahd. For you see, Strahd also loved Tatyana.
Tatyana though had only eyes for Sergei, loving Strahd like a father, but nothing more. It was a torment. In Tatyana he saw the pleasures he had been denied, and in Sergei the youth he had been robbed of.
Strahd had come to hate his brother, and so entered into a pact with death.
The Mists Take You
But as Strahd made his pact, another plot was born in Barovia. Leo Dilisnya, patriarch of a mercantile family, plotted to inherit Strahd’s throne. In order to accomplish this, however, he would need an opportunity. An opportunity to slay the whole of the von Zarovich family.
And opportunity afforded to him by a royal wedding.
Sergei von Zarovich was to be wed to Tatyana, and so Leo Dilisnya accepted an invitation while smuggling in crossbows for his men to slaughter the nobles and claim his throne.
He would see the wedding doomed.
Yet, unbeknownst to him, the wedding was already doomed.
Strahd fell upon his brother with an assassin’s blade, and as he struck his brother down, the Dark Powers acted. Mists descended on the castle and flooded the land, sweeping it away to the Dread Plane and making it a domain.
The Mists can show you your fears, and tempt you from your path.
Source: Ravenloft Player's Handbook (3.5)
Strahd found his way to Tatyana, confessed his crime, and told her of his love.
And she, in turn, threw herself from the castle walls.
Strahd watched as she fell, and as he did, was mortally wounded by the Dilisnya family soldiers. Poison-tipped bolts pierced his skin and tainted his blood, but it did not matter, for his heart no longer beat.
The price of his pact had been paid, and life and death no longer meant anything to the vampire Strahd von Zarovich.
While his forces died around him, Leo Dilisnya and his few family that survived fled and hid. Strahd rampaged through his castle, slaughtering any who had survived the madness as he lashed out at his fate.
Barovia was his domain now. His prison. He now existed as the seed of evil at its heart, and he would never escape.
But Barovia was but the first. There are many more domains of dread that have come to emerge from the Mists since its arrival. And if you'd like to explore them, or just add a little gothic horror to your campaign, be sure to pre-order your copy of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft at the Wizard's Tower. Or, if you'd rather confront Strahd directly, consider picking up a copy of Curse of Strahd.
And until we meet again, may fortune favour you.
In Ravenloft, you'll need all the luck you can get.